A Travellerspoint blog

January 2010

Leftie foote, maximum high

Lazy days in Varkala

sunny 33 °C
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Well, we left Kovalam, but we didn’t get very far—just about two hours up the coast to Kovalam’s fraternal twin, Varkala.

Once again we’re practically tripping over yogis and ayurvedic doctors (some with actual credentials, others not so much) and there’s a wider, longer beach, this time backed by dramatic red cliffs. Unlike Kovalam, where restaurants, shops and hotels lined the beach, Varkala’s beach is comparatively unsullied. The restaurants, shops and hotels line the cliffs above the beach instead, in a long, curving march from south to north. It’s the same profusion of tourist-oriented restaurants, flower-power clothing, embroidered textiles and Buddha figures.

The tourists are slightly different—unlike Kovalam, this is not a package or charter-flight destination, and you have to put a little more work into getting here, so more people are independent travellers. There are a surprising number of families among them, including some with very small children. But we’re definitely outnumbered by the dreadlocked Nirvana-seeking crowd. It’s not uncommon to be walking home from dinner along the crowded, convivial cliff-side boardwalk and have to walk around a traveller sitting cross-legged smack in the middle of the sidewalk, eyes closed, deep in meditation. There are yoga classes on the beach at sunset (and long-bearded yogis in psychedelic flowing robes promoting them), and people practicing their poses or sun salutations in the sand, or meditating on the nearby rocks, every time we visit.

The beach is, again, much cleaner than I would have expected from India, and the surf is perfect for body boarding. Handily, body boards are available for rent, so we’ve developed a routine that revolves around heading to the beach late every afternoon for some wave jumping and body boarding. The kids have learned how to catch some good rides and are having a blast.

It took me a few days, but eventually I noticed an odd thing about Varkala’s beach—there seems to be some informal segregation going on. One half of the beach is dominated by bikini-clad foreigners, while the other is almost exclusively Indian, where you see women fully clad in saris or salwar kameez splashing around in the shallows. The foreigner side does still suffer from the usual gaggles of Indian men wearing business clothes who stroll the beach slowly just to gawk openly at all the flesh on display. And as for the Indian side, I tried jogging through it the other day, barefoot and wearing a one-piece bathing suit and sarong, and was accosted by an outraged-looking Indian man who stepped in front of me and started barking something about the absurdity of me running while clad only in a bathing suit—through his section of the beach, he probably should have added for clarity, since there certainly are foreigners who run through the tourist stretch wearing much less than that.

We’re staying at a small, family-run hotel called Mummy Bamboo House. The online reviews I read about this place all raved about a woman named Rani and her amazing cooking. We assumed she was the owner, but it turns out the eight-room guesthouse is owned by her husband and his mother. Rani does most of the chatting, managing and cooking, and is more or less the face of the hotel. She has two children, a daughter aged 13 and a son who seems to be eight or nine. Rani is a warm, effusive woman without whom this guesthouse would be lacking its key attraction, since the rooms are nothing special. Mummy, on the other hand, is a force to be reckoned with. Mummy spends her days stalking the premises, sari-clad but barefoot, steel-gray hair tied up in a tight bun, eyebrows drawn low over her eyes, looking simultaneously purposeful, suspicious and displeased. She wears a permanent scowl and has the sort of general bearing that would make you not want to cross her.

We’ve taken two neighbouring rooms on the second floor, and from the small balconies that overlook the front yard, we’re free to watch the entire family’s comings and goings. Mummy, Rani and her husband, Sudhanan, along with their two children and a large assortment of extended family members, live in a small, one-storey, thatch-roofed hut next to the hotel, without running water or apparent electricity. It’s fascinating to watch the family go about its daily business, whether heading off to drive rickshaws or taxis each morning, hanging out laundry, heading off to school in uniforms or even just wandering around brushing their teeth, spitting into plants and bushes. It’s as though they built the hotel smack in the middle of what must have recently been their backyard, and now they conduct their personal and family business and chores under the watch of any and all interested guests. I might guess that this could be the source of some of Mummy’s unidentified angst, except that she seems to take considerable pleasure in snatching and counting up the money whenever someone checks out.

Miraculously, out of the tiny, dark and waterless little kitchen come some pretty incredible meals. Breakfast and lunch are available here, and we’ve tried both. Breakfast consists of chai (tea)—the best we’ve ever tasted—and what Rani calls banana pancakes – they’re actually more like thick chapattis folded in half over sliced banana and grated coconut with lots of syrup. Those things stick with you all day. Lunch is a banana-leaf thali, basically rice with an assortment of sauces and side dishes. The plate is a fresh banana leaf, and you eat with your hands. We were prepared to love it, based on what we’d read about Rani’s cooking (and because we generally like thalis), but she must have watered down the spice content for the kids. I found it all a bit too heavily reliant on coconut and not particularly spicy. It was still a novel experience to be eating banana leaf thalis with our hands on a rickety table in a parking lot with Rani fussing over us, though.

Ciaran, for his part, remains unamused about Rani’s determination to see him eat heartily. He isn’t a fan of her pancakes or her thalis, and although he’s old enough to know he shouldn’t do something rotten like say, “Yuck!” out loud, he frowns and picks at his food and eats lightly and reluctantly. The last time we had lunch here, Rani actually tried to feed him personally, so concerned was she that he wasn’t eating enough. He was still chewing a previous mouthful when she tried to shove another forkful of rice and sauce into his mouth, doting-Indian-mama style, smiling broadly all the while. He gently pushed her hand away and made a very subtle displeased face. Ciaran is really tired of being pinched, tousled, grabbed, kissed and otherwise manhandled by people. He’s been pretty patient up to now, but it’s starting to wear a little thin.

He does love Rani’s chai, though, and will drink three or more cups if we don’t stop him. For that matter, Ciaran has turned out to be the most adventurous eater among us, and we are constantly having to talk him down from trying to order what we deem to be the riskiest items on the menu. Basically, if it’s likely to have meat, fish, fresh fruits and veggies or mayonnaise in it—or best of all, all of the above—he’s probably going to want to order it. Then he’s miffed when we tell him we’d rather he didn’t. We’re most comfortable sticking to a vegetarian diet here in India, but the kids can only eat so much dhal and spinach. The upside is that we’ll be bringing home two kids who will eat just about anything Canada can dish out. Whereas at home, both would often complain when I made than eat sauce on their pasta—they preferred it entirely plain, with butter—now they’re just thrilled if they can order the spinach and mushroom lasagne (with béchamel, no less) instead of dhal and rice.

In an effort to get our curry-and-chapati-stuffed bodies moving, Mark and I are taking advantage of the natural and local resources. Mark has taken to running along the beach most mornings, and I’ve signed up for a few yoga classes here and there. Today we bought a yoga mat, so I guess all we need next are the dreadlocks (don’t worry).

The first yoga class I took was quite an experience. It was conducted by a yogi on the rooftop of a nearby guesthouse. The yogi, a potbellied, moustached little man, was unexpectedly bossy right from the start. Noticing the water bottle and sarong I’d brought to the class, he introduced himself by ordering me to place them both off to one side, and he was quite precise about where he wanted them. There was only one other student in the class, a woman who was evidently abundantly experienced. When the yogi asked if I’d done yoga before, I said yes. He seemed to take this as a sign that I would need no pointers or demonstrations whatsoever. He introduced each pose briskly by its Sanskrit name as a sort of command, without offering the English translation, and since he wasn’t doing the poses along with us, I had to look at the woman next to me for clues as to what I should be doing with my limbs. But it was hard not to develop a conciliatory fondness for the guy when he started telling us what to do with our feet. “Leftie foote up now, maximum high,” he would say, and then, “rightie foote next, also maximum high.”

Despite his peremptory approach, it was still a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I could hear the surf crashing and see palm trees swaying above me in a blue sky. It was really pretty sweet.

As for the kids’ recreation, they’re exercising their usual creativity. Ciaran has been collecting empty water bottles, and he uses them as bowling pins; the ball is a baby coconut he found on the ground. Sometimes he varies the game by hitting the coconut with a hockey ministick instead of rolling it by hand. The same tools can be used for a game of baseball, with palm trees representing the bases. Rani’s kids and their cousins were home these past two days because it was the weekend, so we brought out the Lego and all of the kids spent hours building with it.

Other than that, both Chloe and Ciaran are reading up a storm. It’s gotten to the point where they can barely be bothered to look up from their books long enough to read the menu and order food, which is actually a bit irritating. Chloe, of course, was like this before we left. In Ciaran’s case, we feel we’ve driven him to it by depriving him of friends, toys and all the regular diversions of his Canadian home and neighbourhood. We counter any guilt we may feel about this by reminding ourselves that he’ll be seeing all his friends again soon enough, and now he’ll always have reading (not to mention Asia).

So we’re really not sure why we should leave Varkala. The big family joke is that we should just stay here until February 24, then fly to Mumbai, visit for one day, and head home. Of course, we won’t really do that. There are at least three or four more destinations in Kerala that are on the agenda, and Goa after that, and possibly one or two other places in between. But it’s going to be hard to tear ourselves away from here.

Posted by The Rymans 20:51 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (4)

Will the real India please stand up?

sunny 30 °C
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Arriving in Trivandrum and finding our way to the Kovalam guesthouse we'd booked was a piece of cake. No touts were standing in the road "to divert us" after all, as we'd been warned; there was just the one requisite wannabe-tout/guide who insisted on walking in front of us all the way through the labyrinth of paths that led from the main road to our guest house. Ostensibly, he was helping us find our way here. Of course, this was not a free service. He was a little bit drunk, and we cheerfully gave him about 30 rupees (75 cents) when we reached our destination. He made sure we knew that his services had been worth far more than that. We agreed to disagree.

We've been here a week now. Our original plan was to stay four nights, but it stretched into five, then six, and so on. We seem to be stuck here. It's hard to get motivated to move on when we're enjoying the place so much. But the thought keeps nagging at me: This is not difficult enough. This is not the India I remember!

You can't throw a stone here without hitting a pleasant yoga centre or ayurvedic clinic. The hawkers are gentle and give up easily, so that their sales pitches seem more helpful than irritating. There are boxes for garbage along the seafront, and people are actually using them. The water is clear and clean. There are no roads, only slim paths through coconut groves, so there is no motorized traffic whatsoever and no air or noise pollution. There are Indian men actually swimming and playing on the beach in bathing suits instead of arriving the way I remember them best from Diu twelve years ago -- then, they were fully clad in business attire, right down to their black socks and leather loafers, wandering the beaches in groups with the sole and obvious purpose of unabashedly ogling bikini-clad foreigners. Today, three young Keralan guys joined Chloe, Mark and Ciaran in an informal soccer match on the sand, then handed out fruit and cookies to share.

Every so often, Mark raises an eyebrow at me and asks, in mock suspicion, whether I've actually brought him to India or have instead orchestrated a massive hoax and taken us all somewhere else instead. In a sense, I suppose I have brought us all somewhere else. Not only are we in the south instead of the north, but in 12 years, a lot has changed. Coincidentally, I've had to do some reading about India's economic development for a banking client this week, and have discovered that while there were just 3 shopping malls in India as recently as 2001, today there are more than 350. The Indian middle class is reportedly 330 million strong. (In a country with a population of 1.2 billion, that still leaves an enormous number of poor people, but still.) These are just a couple of the many interesting figures I came across, and maybe they explain some of our experiences here so far. Or, more likely, maybe it's just that Kovalam, which is accustomed to receiving charter flights from the UK, has adapted itself to suit western tastes. Maybe, as a resort area, Kovalam is a slightly artificial enclave.

In any case, the food here is excellent. Although we eat mainly Indian food for lunches and dinners, we've become loyal devotees of a nearby place called the German Bakery for breakfasts. The baked goods are actually nothing to write home about, but this place has the best coffee I've ever tasted anywhere in my entire life. It also has an amusing menu. There are half a dozen "set menu" breakfasts, such as the American (mostly eggs and bacon--yes, bacon, what's with that??) or the British (throw in some beans). Well, I noticed this morning that the French breakfast was something a little different. The French breakfast consists of a croissant, cafe au lait, and a cigarette. I have to wonder how that cigarette is served. On a plate?

Of course, some things really don't change, and I wasn't surprised to pick up the morning paper (another thing I love about India: a free press and daily newspapers, many of them in English) and read that the state of Kerala is rolling out plans to reduce the number of traffic accidents and fatalities. Currently, there are some 3,500 fatalities and 15,000 "grievous accidents" every year on the main state highways. That's 10 deaths every day, just in this one small state. That's why we plan to travel by train as much as possible.

Our next destination is Varkala, another beach town about an hour north of here that sounds even more relaxed than this place. I'm still skeptical. I'm not sure how that's possible. I guess we'll see.

By the way, for anyone sending us email and wondering about a reply: it would seem that the days of free in-room wifi have ground to a halt with our arrival in India. There are internet cafes around, and we'll use them, but I think our days of checking email almost daily are over for a while.

Posted by The Rymans 08:37 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

We love our India....We love our India...

sunny 30 °C
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Twelve years ago when we had reached the end of our four-month stint in the sub-continent, we couldn’t wait to leave. At the time, a popular song (which had blasted from the speakers of every bus we took over the four months we spent) featured the lines, “I love my India! I love my India!” and it echoed in our heads as we set forth towards the airport on our way to Thailand – only we were singing, gleefully, “We’re leaving India! We’re leaving India!” It had been a love-hate affair. In a year of travelling through a dozen countries, a third of them in Africa, no place had been as trying, difficult, exasperating or memorable as India.

And then a strange thing happened. Over the next half dozen years, we started to miss the place. It turned out that although later on in that year of travel we visited places that should have been equally fascinating—including three countries in southeast Asia and four in Africa—most of the stories we found ourselves recalling and recounting were about things that had happened to us in India. We had seen only the north of the country during that trip, and as the years went by I knew that some day, we were going to have to do it to ourselves again: we were going to have to go back to India and see the south.

But this time, with kids in tow and some experience behind us, we approached the arrival differently.

Twelve years ago, we flew into Delhi, got a taxi to drop us at the railway station near Old Delhi’s Paharganj district, where most of the cheap backpacker hotels were, and went into the bazaar on foot from there. We were fresh from Canada, pasty white, with clean, new backpacks, carrying our Lonely Planet guidebook. We drew touts like ants to a puddle of honey, and once they were stuck to us, they were equally difficult to remove. We were assaulted by a storm of sights, sounds and smells, and found ourselves accosted by what seemed like dozens of beggars--some missing digits or limbs, sometimes propelling themselves on carts, some of them scruffy, barefoot children with their hands outstretched. We were unprepared for the open manholes, the mazes of narrow, busy, unmarked streets, the sweltering heat, the choking pollution, the combined smells of sewage, sweat, cooking and incense, the noise and chaos and crushing press of humanity.

Although our arrival in Delhi still makes for a good story all these years later, we didn’t feel inclined to repeat it or subject the kids to it. Instead, this time we pre-booked a four-star airport hotel located about a 15-minute drive from the Chennai airport, and had the hotel send a driver to pick us up. So when we’d cleared immigration and customs and wandered outside near midnight into the thicket of people waiting and waving, there was a friendly man in a white uniform holding up a bright white and yellow sign that said: “LEMON TREE HOTEL, Mr. Patti Ryan.”

I wished I’d taken a photo of that, but as soon as I thought of opening my bag to grab the camera, the man had disappeared into the crowd to go get the car, and the opportunity was lost. Mr. Patti Ryan, because in India, the assumption is that a man would have been making all the arrangements by email. That would have irritated me a dozen years ago, but now I just find it humorous.

The ride to the hotel was completely uneventful, and the hotel itself may just be the second-nicest of our entire trip so far. There is a TV that receives 257 channels, so the kids woke up and immediately turned on Cartoon Network. There’s a swimming pool. It would take me a week to work my way through all the free toiletries in the bathroom—there’s even a loofah. From our ninth-storey room, we can see much of the city laid out before us.

We’re not going to explore it, though. We decided some time ago that we were probably trying to cover too much ground by travelling from Chennai down to the southernmost tip of the country at Trivandrum and then all the way back up the west coast to Mumbai in just seven weeks, so we booked a flight from Chennai to Trivandrum. We’ll be on it this afternoon—so actually, we’ve managed to put off our full immersion into India by about 24 hours. The hotel we chose near Trivandrum, at Kovalam beach, is closer to $10 a night, has no air-conditioning, and doesn’t offer an airport pickup. We’ll grab a prepaid taxi from the airport, but our directions from the hotel tell us to get out at a particular temple and walk from there, since there is no proper road, and to “be cautious of the brokers who stand in the road to divert you.” In other words, dodge the touts.

But hey, we’re old hands at that now. After all, we’ve just spent a month in Vietnam. India: Bring it on!

Posted by The Rymans 20:40 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

New Year's Eve in Halong Bay

semi-overcast 22 °C
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We rang in the new year in style on a Chinese junk in Halong Bay. Leaving Hoi An and all the Christmas trimmings and trappings we’d acquired there, we flew to Hanoi, arriving in the evening, and set off the very next morning for Halong City to board the boat that would be our home for the next day or two as we cruised and kayaked around spectacular Halong Bay on December 31 and January 1.

I’d read that December was the dry season in northern Vietnam, but it seems there’s no escaping the perpetual mist and fog of the bay, at least not at this time of year. It was dreary and foggy the last time we visited, twelve years ago, and it was dreary and foggy—and cold—this time as well. Still, the mist lends a mysterious, ethereal beauty to the already-stunning scenery, and the cool weather was a welcome change from months of tropical heat.

We were not alone on the boat—it was a large junk with at least 10 cabins, so we were joining a group of some 16 other tourists and four or five staff (no other children, unfortunately). We spent the first afternoon cruising the bay until we’d reached a floating village where the locals make their living farming fish and oysters. Some of the oysters are grown for food, while others are for pearls. We had an interesting time comparing the process by which a pearl is formed with the process by which callouses on Chloe’s feet are formed. Basically, the farmer embeds a grain of sand into each oyster; the oyster responds to grain of sand as though it were a wound—by growing a protective little shell around it. Over time, the response creates a pearl which is eventually harvested.

In the case of Chloe’s feet, tiny grains of dirt or sand that managed to find their way under the skin on the soles of her feet have caused the skin to react by forming tough, painful callouses. We’ve been deliberating for two months now over whether or not to have them treated medically (by having them burnt or frozen off or surgically removed) or persevere with our gradual approach of applying salicylic acid to them. In any event, she got a kick out of understanding that in at least this way, she may be similar to an oyster!

After we’d been rowed around the floating villages in a small wooden boat for an hour or two, it was time to return to the junk and relax before dinner. Since it was New Year’s, we sprang for a bottle of wine (a nearly unheard-of splurge on this trip). Normally, most passengers, including us, would have been asleep by 11 p.m. or so, preparing for an early morning of kayaking around the bay the next day—but this was New Year’s, so the crew cranked up the tunes and got the party started. Our guide, a young guy of maybe 25, had some good moves and tried to get people dancing. Nobody was taking him up on it, though, until Chloe jumped in. The two of them began with the macarena, and moved on from there, dancing up a storm. Ciaran ran down to our cabin to change into his Thai boxing shorts and Tiger beer shirt so he could join in the fun, then ran back up and started shadow-boxing alongside Chloe. Eventually he was tired enough to ask to go to bed, though, so I went down to the cabin to put him to sleep. By the time I re-emerged, Chloe had at least half a dozen people dancing with her, and Mark said she had essentially worked the room while I was gone, getting everyone out on the dance floor, not taking no for an answer. For the next two hours she danced up a storm, showing not the slightest sign of tiring, excited, energetic and determined to be awake at midnight. It took some persuading to get her to leave the party after the champagne had been handed out, but she was asleep by 1 a.m.

We kayaked around the bay the next day for at least two hours, enjoying the emerald water and dramatic limestone outcroppings for which the area is famous. By the end of the afternoon we had cruised to Cat Ba Island, where we spent the night at a beautiful resort with a large pool and private, white-sand beach. Unfortunately, it was so cold and wet outside that none of us were interested in swimming. But we enjoyed getting to know the other people on our cruise a little better at dinner, and the following morning we hiked to a few other beaches along a beautiful trail built into the side of the limestone cliffs.

Back in Hanoi the next evening, we met up with Ken and Jo, friends of ours from Portland who are on a three-week holiday in Cambodia and Vietnam. It was great to catch up; on the first night, Ken and Mark went out drinking around 10 p.m., spending most of the evening sitting on small plastic chairs on the sidewalk near our hotel in the Old Quarter and drinking bia hoi (Vietnamese draft beer), not returning until 3 a.m. The next evening, Ken and Jo treated us to a fabulous dinner at a Vietnamese-French fusion restaurant that trains disadvantaged Vietnamese youth so they can get jobs in hospitality. So our last dinner in Vietnam was certainly a four-star affair—thanks again, Ken and Jo (if you’re reading)!

Hanoi is still the same incredibly photogenic city that I remember from our last visit, but its streets are infinitely more motorbike-choked than they were a decade ago. Negotiating the narrow streets of the Old Quarter as a pedestrian is challenging, especially with kids, since the sidewalks are usually occupied by parked motorbikes, impromptu kitchens and hawkers. It was great to be in the heart of the city for a few days and stroll around the the lake. We took loads of fabulous photos, but I'll have to upload them another time since I'm nearly out of (pricey) wifi at the moment.

One thing we really enjoyed about both the Halong Bay cruise and our time in Hanoi with Ken and Jo was listening to the kids talk about our trip so far. When it’s just the four of us, as it so often is, it’s not always easy to tell what the kids are getting out of this trip—what stays with them, what horrifies them, what pleases them or what they’re likely to remember years from now. But when they get fresh blood, so to speak, they don’t stop talking, and we really get a kick out of hearing them tell other people about everything we’ve seen and done.

Okay, with 3 minutes left of wifi, here are some photos I managed to upload! The first one is a photo of the junk we were on.








Posted by The Rymans 20:34 Archived in Vietnam Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

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